It’s time for meaningful criminal justice reform in Tennessee | Opinion
We can hold those who don’t pose a threat accountable in ways that don’t end up filling Tennessee’s prisons and leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
By David H. Safavian
This week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee introduced significant criminal justice reform legislation. The common-sense proposals would establish alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent offenders, and reform the state’s probation and parole systems. While these are modest bills, they are a good start. Governor Lee’s smart on crime approach is something all conservatives should get behind.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Tennessee locks up more of its own people than 37 other states. In fact, the Volunteer State’s incarceration rate is 20% higher than the national average. If it were its own country, Tennessee would have a higher incarceration rate than Russia and China combined.
The policies driving incarceration in Tennessee would make sense if they translated into greater public safety for her citizens. But that is not the case. US News & World Report ranks Tennessee 45th in terms of overall crime. And if we just focus on violent crime, Tennessee ranks 48th in the country. Indeed, Illinois, Kentucky and Georgia are all safer states in which to live.
It is not as though Tennesseans are more crime prone. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real problem is the state’s criminal justice system, which locks up too many people for far too long. And that has been driven largely by the prosecutors’ lobby, which has never met a meaningful criminal justice reform proposal that it could support.
My grandfather had a saying: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That summarizes Tennessee’s approach to crime policy under the influence of prosecutors. More conduct is made illegal. Sentences get longer. And prison and jail populations grow. The result? Tennessee spent $1.12 billion on prisons in 2020 or $23,468 per state prisoner. (By comparison, the state spends $10,564 to educate one high school student per year.) Worse yet, as the prison population ages, the price of incarcerating senior citizens – who are far less likely to re-offend – can increase two- or three-fold because of healthcare costs.
However, it’s not just the fiscal costs of an overbroad justice system that should upset Tennesseans. Yes, we should expect the government to spend our money wisely. But the system also leaves a trail of broken families and single parent households, which contribute to a cycle of crime and poverty that we have seen span generations in places like Memphis and Springfield.
Equally troubling, locking up people who don’t post a threat to the communities deprives more effective crime strategies of critical funding. Unlike the federal government, Nashville can’t just print money; the state has to live within its means. Every dollar wasted on overincarceration has to be made up by cutting other programs or increasing government spending. This makes no sense. Programs proven to actually reduce crime must be fully funded if the state is to lower its crime rate. That is hard to do, however, when prosecutors obtain unnecessarily long sentences for non-violent offenders and leave citizens to pick up the tab.
Of course, no one is arguing that people should be given a pass for wrongdoing. But not every crime requires a years- or decades-long prison sentence. Yes, we must protect communities from violent offenders. But for those who do not pose a threat, we can hold them accountable in ways that don’t end up filling Tennessee’s prisons and leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
The other half of the equation is to help ex-offenders re-enter society. More than 90% of those in prison will eventually return home. The key is to have them return as better versions of themselves. Providing education, training, mental health services and addiction treatment while they serve their time is critical to that goal. Once they have paid their debts to society, the state needs to reduce unnecessary barriers to employment and housing that so often arise for those with a criminal record. Why? Because people coming out of prison are less likely to re-offend when they have meaningful work and a safe place to live.
Conservative justice reforms implemented in states such as Michigan, Texas, Utah and Georgia have shown that it is possible to reduce incarceration, cut spending, and lower crime rates all at the same time. Governor Lee’s criminal justice plan takes the best of these ideas in an effort to make Tennessee safer. And for that, we should all applaud.
 David Safavian is the General Counsel of the American Conservative Union.